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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Art of the Umayyad Period in Spain (711–1031)

On July 19, 711, an army of Arabs and Berbers unified under the aegis of the Islamic Umayyad caliphate landed on the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next seven years, through diplomacy and warfare, they brought the entire peninsula except for Galicia and Asturias in the far north under Islamic control; however, frontiers with the Christian north were constantly in flux. The new Islamic territories, referred to as al-Andalus by Muslims, were administered by a provincial government established in the name of the Umayyad caliphate in Damascus and centered in Córdoba. Of works of art and other material culture only coins and scant ceramic fragments remain from this early period of the Umayyad governors (711–56).

When the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus was overthrown by the Abbasids in 750, the last surviving member of the Umayyad dynasty fled to Spain, establishing himself as Amir ‘Abd al-Rahman I and thus initiating the Umayyad emirate (756–929). ‘Abd al-Rahman I (r. 756–88) made Córdoba his capital and unified al-Andalus under his rule with a firm hand, while establishing diplomatic ties with the northern Christian kingdoms, North Africa, and the Byzantine empire and maintaining cultural contact with the ‘Abbasids in Baghdad. The initial construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba under his patronage was the crowning achievement of this formative period of Hispano-Islamic art and architecture.

The Umayyads reclaimed their right to the caliphate during the reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912–61), who became the first Spanish Umayyad amir to declare himself caliph (929). Under the Umayyad caliphate (929–1031), Córdoba became perhaps the greatest intellectual center of Europe, with celebrated libraries and schools. Hispano-Umayyad art reached its apogee during the lengthy reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman III and his son al-Hakam II (r. 961–76) and the regency of the powerful ‘Amirids, particularly al-Mansur (978–1002), chamberlain to the nominal ruler, the child-prince Hisham II (r. 976–1013 with interruption). Despite their open rejection of ‘Abbasid political authority, the Umayyads of Córdoba emulated the opulent palatial arts of the centers of ‘Abbasid power, Baghdad and Samarra. There was also influence from the Fatimid rulers, who had established an independent Shi‘i caliphate in North Africa in 909 and occupied Egypt in 969. Perhaps in response to these eastern Mediterranean cultural impulses, which coexisted with a strong indigenous artistic component, there began to appear in Córdoba a revival of the Umayyad period, almost a nostalgia for the time when the Umayyads ruled the Islamic world from Damascus. Art patronage as a sign of kingship and authority is a theme that emerged from these creative appropriations from abroad and the past. Luxurious objects such as boxes of carved ivory and gilt silver, bronze animal statuary, and richly figured silks were commissioned for palaces decorated with ornate marble capitals, stucco wall panels, and marble fountains. ‘Abd al-Rahman III’s palace city at Madinat al-Zahra‘ set the standard for artistic taste in the caliphate, and al-Hakam II’s addition to the Great Mosque of Córdoba marked the imposition of a palatial level of luxury and hierarchy on this religious monument.